The Bust of Cosimo I and Ben Affleck

Cellini's Bust of Cosimo I

Above all, Florence is a city of sculpture. Although certain works get more press than others (*cough*…*cough*…the David), the city houses some of the finest Renaissance marble and bronze works around. One of the greatest pieces (in this writer’s humble opinion) is a three foot tall bronze bust of Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici, created by the sculptor Benvenuto Cellini between 1545-1547. Now I know what you’re thinking: busts sound boring. But this thing is really something to behold. It sits in the bottom floor of the Bargello, tucked in a corner where few even notice it. For those who do, something particular captures their attention: a presence seen in few Renaissance works.

The story behind the bust’s creation is pretty wild, mainly because the artist who created it was something of a rogue. “The Autobiography of Benventuo Cellini” is one of the most hilarious books you can read from the period. Cellini rescues maidens from thieves, he pals around with the greatest artists of the time (Titian and Michelangelo), he kills six different men (one was his wife’s lover…the others are dudes who looked at him funny), and is eventually imprisoned in the Castel Sant’Angelo (yes, the place from “Angels and Demons;” it used to be a jail…). There he has mystic visions and is saved by an angel, falls 50 feet from the walls of the prison after trying to escape, breaks his leg, and wanders through the streets of Rome. Oh, did I mention that he single-handedly killed the Prince of Orange with a well placed musket ball between the eyes during the Sack of Rome in 1527, and helped defend Pope Clement VII by manning the canons on the Castello? Imagine something out of Rambo-like in violence where among a mass of scattered dead bodies, a lone artist is protecting the pope from an entire army…his shirt torn open just right…hair blowing in the wind…and somehow during all of this, he had time to create artwork. Well…you know…they didn’t have TV. If Glee was on, I am sure he would have been busy.

A bust of Cellini now on the Ponte Vecchio

In 1545 Cellini returned to his home town of Florence. Having lived in France for the past few years working for Francis I, Cellini had a high opinion of himself. He had worked for the King crafting some of the finest metalwork in Europe (some candlesticks and a saltcellar, and the famed “Nymph of Fontainebleau”), so naturally he needed a job that was on a similar income level. Who could he turn to but the Duke of Florence? Now, the difference between Paris and Florence in the sixteenth century was considerable. It would have been like moving from New York/Los Angeles (take your pick) to Boston (yes, the place where the Red Sox are from). One had all the glitz and glamor of the big city and for an artist must have been a sight to see. Florence instead was famous, but you had no idea why, really (like Boston). It was sizable but in the middle of nowhere. People talked with funny accents and all they could yammer on about was how the Celtics should be winning more games (or that Michelangelo should come back from Rome and save the city from artistic desolation…see the similarities? They are uncanny). Indeed, at one point Florence had a lot of artistic talent to its credit, but most reputable artists had left for the big cities (you know like Boston once had Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, but now they live in Hollywood and only return to maintain street cred…). People in Europe were paying attention to the tiny Italian town, but always with a sense of confusion. It wasn’t very powerful or even very financially well off, but it had…something. Of course Duke Cosimo I was trying to change peoples’ opinion of the city, first and foremost with artistic commissions from men like Cellini.

The bust was the first work that Cosimo commissioned from Benvenuto upon his arrival to his hometown. Cellini was a native son, but he had been away for quite some time, so Cosimo needed to make sure all that French air hadn’t rotted his homegrown Florentine artistic ability. The work was intended as a trial piece, to challenge Cellini to see if he could cast something in bronze that was monumental in size, a process that had more or less been lost since classical antiquity. Cellini managed to pull the work off, creating one of the largest metal busts cast since ancient Rome (seems a little cooler now, right?). The bust of Cosimo glares out at the viewer with a rather intense look of determination, dressed in an ancient Roman cuirass (fancy word for armor), shown as the defender of Tuscany. In 1557 the bust was shipped to the island of Elba, and placed inside a fortress that Cosimo had built to defend the coastline from Turkish pirates. But in order to remember the work, Cosimo commissioned Cellini to make a copy in marble which is now in the De Young Museum in San Francisco. By that time Cellini had so thoroughly irritated the Duke with his insanity (he managed to get into more trouble at home, fleeing from a night watchman and hiding out in Venice for a time) that he was left an old man in Florence, with little to do but write his own memoir. The bust would remain on Elba (Napoleon did a little redecorating with it when he was there…) until the 19th century when it was brought back into Florence and placed in the Bargello for safekeeping. If you get a second while you’re in Florence, go make friends with it. Stare into Cosimo’s eyes and think of what your life would be like if you didn’t watch so much TV (damn that Glee is good).

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